Willson Contreras has struck out less this year than last year. He’s walked about the same. His on-base percentage is basically the same as his career mark, a very strong .353. He has a 107 wRC+, which is about seven percent better than league average.
And yet you know as well as I do how it has felt: Willson Contreras has been a black hole at the plate this season.
How exactly do we reconcile the numbers up there with our feeling of dread when Contreras comes to the plate?
Well, unfortunately, the numbers up there don’t provide the entire context for Contreras’s offensive performance this season, and, in particular, how he’s done since the start of August: .200/.310/.280 (65 wRC+). I can’t and won’t speculate on a player’s health, but I will say that Contreras has caught a whole lot of games the last two and a half years. Maybe he’s wearing down a bit.
But, more broadly, the reason for his relatively poor season is pretty clear: he’s just not hitting the ball well.
If you’ll recall, Contreras came into the league on the strength of a minor league breakout that had him as one of the best line-drive hitters in the game. Dude just seemed to barrel everything he saw. Sure, it didn’t translate to a ton of home runs, but it was hard contact, which yielded lots of hits, lots of doubles, and some homers.
This year, Contreras’ ISO is down nearly 70 points, and he has just 9 homers. His hard contact rate (28.9%) fell dramatically from last year (35.5%), and his soft contact rate exploded (22.5%, from 17.0%). Although his groundball rate is basically flat from last year, it’s still a very elevated 51.1%. Worse, his infield pop up rate has climbed to 11.0%.
Digging a little deeper at Statcast, we can see that, although Contreras’s average exit velocity is the same as where it was last year, his average launch angle has climbed dramatically, from 5.9 degrees to 7.7 degrees.
Worse, that average appears to be pushed up by him having far more batted balls in the 30-degree-and-up range where you are virtually guaranteed an out.
Here he is from last year, with barely any contact above the 20-degree mark turning into outs:
And now this year, notice the HUGE increase in gray space (outs!) above the 20-degree mark:
What does this tell us? Well, combined with all the other data, it has the look of a guy who was hitting the ball very well on a line, and then tried to untap some additional power potential by hitting the ball in the air more often … but it isn’t taking. Contreras is generally still getting his hits in the same range, but the added balls he’s elevating? They’re just turning into outs. That tells me that although he’s able to add loft to his swing, he hasn’t been able to pair that loft with actual hard contact *ON* those additional balls in the air.
You combine that with a little more weak contact on the ground, too, and you’ve got the recipe for a guy whose batting eye is basically as good as ever, is still able to make the same volume of contact, but whose production plummets.
If there isn’t an injury issue at play that is impacting his swing, there will have to be a discussion in the offseason about how the mechanics may have gotten out of whack to add all this additional weak contact in the air.
Not every player’s highest and best value will come from simply hitting the ball in the air more often, even if they otherwise appear to have the tools to make that happen. Willson Contreras may just be a line drive guy. And, based on the two season before this one, that was plenty good.